The Adventure

7/3/15 – 26/3/15

I have finally found some time to sit down and write a blog post about my experiences during the month of March. This month marks a turning point for me, because I truly feel that everything that I am headed towards the end of my Peace Corps service. In a little over 8 months I will be flying away from Uganda and gonging out at the Peace Corps office. This blog post, will be devoted to the adventure of Alex Bansleben and Marvin Roxas who journeyed to the far western and southwestern regions of Uganda in order to destroy the One Ring of Mt. Nyiragongo.

Saturday 7th – Sunday 8th

I arrived in Kampala in order to participate in a meeting of the Geography Club of Uganda. We Geo Club Dinnerstayed at the New City Annex and purchased the ingredients to make a huge three-course dinner at the house of the Director of Programming and Training. The meeting involved discussing the issues regarding LGBTI issues in Peace Corps Uganda both as a support system and how allies could lend their own support to other PCV’s. At some point, I raised a concern regarding what the response should be if another Peace Corps Volunteer stated that he or she did not support LGBTI PCV’s. This sparked a healthy discussion where PCV’s and allies bounced around ideas regarding how one should respond to the person in question. Some people said that everyone was entitled their own opinions, while others stated that they would debate that person. However, it was unanimously agreed upon that the person who did not support Geo PCV’s should not be attacked, especially since he or she is voicing an opinion and should also not feel victimized.

The three-course dinner consisted of:

  • Lettuce Salad and Pumpkin Soup
  • Tomato and Basil Pasta, Black and Tan Pasta, Alfredo Pasta, and Pasta Salad
  • Lemon Squares topped with Mint, Gooseberries, and Kiwi Slices

After dinner, I received a call from my friend Alex who had gotten on an overnight bus from Nairobi to Kampala. That night a lot of us went out to the clubs and we got back to the Annex around 5am.

Monday 9th – Thursday 12th

Four hours later, Alex arrived in Kampala. Fortunately, Alex took the Modern Coast bus which dropped him off right in front of the Annex. I ran out to meet him and he dropped his bags off at the Annex.

We headed to Prunes for brunch and catching up. Honestly, I hadn’t had a lengthy conversation with Alex for over 4 years and I didn’t know what our common interests were. I shared with him the basics about how Peace Corps Uganda worked and about my work here, and he shared with me his work as a consultant at Accenture. This would turn out to be a theme throughout the duration of our adventure in Uganda and Rwanda. Every now and then we would share something with the other that helped explain how our personalities and experiences since high school drastically changed us.

We napped a bit back at the Annex, and then headed down towards the taxi park area so that Alex could buy some kitenge from the vendors and get them made by my favorite tailor. Alex bought some kitenge, which is Congolese fabric, from some Congolese vendors with whom he spoke French. We then brought the fabric to my favorite tailor who agreed to make them into button down dress shirts and regular t-shirts. We continued towards the Gaddafi Mosque, which was closed since it was past 6pm, so we hurried to grab a small dinner at the Acacia Mall area with other PCV’s. It was at this point that Alex was introduced to the bluntness and openness of PCV’s that night. The conversation revolved around vibrators that female PCV’s brought or had surreptitiously sent to them. I explained to Alex that PCV’s chiefly talked about three topics: poop, sex, and other Peace Corps Volunteers.

Alex and Village ChildrenThe next morning I brought Alex with me to the Peace Corps office because I had a PCVL meeting concerning the site development process. The procedure was being personalized for the older education PCV’s in-country in order to make it more personalized and give PCV’s a voice in sharing why they would like a future PCV to continue the work that they had started at their sites. The meeting ends in the late afternoon, after which Alex and I take a private hire down to the taxi park and then take a taxi back to Wobulenzi where we purchase produce from the local market. We make it back to my village where all of the village children immediately run up to him to stroke his leg hair and hold his hands.

As we prepare for dinner, Alex takes out some of the gifts that he brought: a Kindle, incense, acne facial scrub, books for the students, and some money that would go towards a needed project. We chill that night with the incense and some fennel steak dinner.

Journal Entry:

“It’s interesting hearing the different perspectives that Alex has and brings here from the US. Like some offhand comments or responses about how he “gets it”. Or it’s the weirdness of being around someone whom I still have to explain everything to rather than the silent solidarity of knowing the life that we live here, like other PCV’s…”

The next day we get up and prepare for a day of teaching and local exploration. We start off withAlex Teaching teaching a division lesson to Year 1 students. Afterwards, we gather them outside to hold an HIV/AIDS session with them where we explained the biology behind HIV/AIDS, exposed the myths, and demonstrated the fast rate of HIV transmission through unprotected sex. Afterwards, I brought Alex to the nearby hill where I can get internet access, and then to the Kabaka’s Palace. We grabbed a rolex from a chappati guy in Bamunanika and then walked to another hill that overlooked the majority of the sub-county. As the sun set and I chilled up there with Alex, I found it hard to believe that I was embarking on this journey with an old friend whom I haven’t hung out with for almost half a decade.

On Thursday we sleep-in, pack up, and head back to Kampala and stay at the Fat Cat Backpackers. We check out Acacia mall and I show Alex the Definition store and Nakumatt. We meet up with PCV Wayne Wong who shares how some other PCV’s whom he met at a Malaria Conference in Senegal remember me from the weekend spent in Kigali, Rwanda last August during the Guma Guma event. Funnily enough, later that night we meet an NGO guy who went to University of Maryland College Park and now works in Gulu. I still find it crazy how regardless of where we go in the world, we will somehow meet someone with whom we have had shared experiences.

Friday 13th – Saturday 14th

We spent the day walking to the Gaddafi Mosque, which was very grand to say the least. I found it Gaddafi Mosquehard to believe that there was this gigantic, public mosque whose carpets came from Morocco, mahogany handrails from the Congo, and funding from the benevolent to many African countries but his own, Gaddafi. Apparently, so many African countries other than Libya are huge fans of Gaddafi because of the money that he so generously shared with them in order to build things such as this mosque, which is also the 2nd biggest mosque in Africa. After climbing the tower with a  spiral staircase and walking barefoot on the plush Moroccan carpets, we met up with PCV Ravi Sahai and walked towards the Kasubi Tombs of the Kabaka.

This UNESCO World Heritage site is the location of the past four Kabaka’s tombs as well as his tradition grass-thatched round house. Unfortunately, the main house was destroyed in a fire five years ago, and the perpetrator has still not been apprehended. The tour guide shared with us the history of the past four Kabaka’s. We heard stories about the many wives of the Kabaka, how one of them was assassinated by Idi Amin’s agents, the dissolution of the tribes of Uganda, and the eventual reinstatement of the tribes under the current Kabaka with the collaboration of Museveni.

Kisubi TombsWe passed by the other ceremonial straw houses that housed actual families. Each house had a modern-day fire extinguisher attached near the front entrance. However, one of the most intriguing parts of the tour was a mud hut that was over 100 years old. I mean the tin roof was repurposed from scraps that the British colonizers discarded, and the mud was packed and repacked through the years. After arguing with the receptionist in both Luganda and Runyoro we were able to receive the price of an East African Resident, while Alex had to pay the full fee.

We took several taxi rides back to Acacia Mall and bought some whiskey to pregame for the night. That night, we pre-gamed at Fat Cat and then danced at both Iguana and Cayenne until around 6am. I had planned to go out to the clubs in Kampala this Friday since it was the COS (Close of Service) conference of the PCV’s in the CHED (Community Health, Economic Development) cohort that would be leaving Uganda within the next three months. By the time I got back to the hostel, a random Pakistani man was sleeping in my bed so I just crashed on the bed/couch in the common room. There were a few funny stories from that night, but the most memorable was when we were entering Cayenne and the bouncers stopped one of the guys in our group from entering since the dress code stipulated that all men wear long trousers and he was wearing shorts.

Conversation:

Us: “Okay how much do you want us to bribe you to let him in?”

Bouncers: “We don’t accept bribes.”

Us: “Okay, can we talk to your manager please?”

Bouncers: “The manager will not want to talk with you or accept your bribe. This is why Uganda is not a great country; because of corruption and bribery.”

Us: *sarcasm* “Oh yes, we definitely agree that by not letting in a man with short trousers is making Uganda a worse country”

Us: *one of the girls and the guy in shorts switches pants so that the guy is wearing the girl’s capris and the girl is wearing his cargo shorts* “We’re ready!”

Bouncers: “Okay, you can enter now.”

A few hours later in the morning, I wake up in the common room couch and am probably still drunk. I eat the breakfast provided by Fat Cat and pack up my things in preparation for the journey to Fort Portal. Wayne Wong decides to tag along for a few days. We go to the Barclays in order to withdraw some money that we then converted into $US in preparation for our eventual sojourn into Rwanda. We take a taxi from the taxi park to Fort Portal. I kept pointing out to the equally as hungover Alex the places where Ravi, Godfrey, and I biked during our bike journey.

Jenna's Pit LatrineWe met up with PCV Jenna Marcotte at Sweet Aromas bakery, which had changed spots from the last time I was at Fort Portal during Camp Kuseka. Now it was located near the Kasese Road. It was here that we bought the One Ring at the local Indian Store. The goal was that Alex would eventually destroy it in the fiery pits of Mt. Nyiragongo in the DRC during his trek later that week. In the meantime, we shared a dinner together of the best pizza in country at the Duchess restaurant.

I can still remember feeling the cool, slightly damp air of the night breezing through the open windows of the private hire as we headed towards Jenna’s site at Kazingo. In the middle of the journey, Jenna pointed out the fire on one of the nearby foothills of the Rwenzori’s that signified the beginning of farmers clearing the brush for farming since rainy season was soon approaching. Jenna’s house was one of the most comfortable houses that I have ever stayed in as a PCV. Even though there wasn’t any running water or electricity, I felt like I was at home. The best part was that the house got very cold at night.

Sunday 15th – Tuesday 17th

We left the Rwenzori foothills of Kazingo and went back to Fort Portal. Wayne Wong and Alex wentNyakasharu Setting Up the Tent to reserve a taxi headed towards Mbarara while I rushed to the market to purchase some produce for our stay at Dave the Cave Nyakasharu Eco Lodge. The lodge was located about 3 hours south of Fort Portal a little bit after passing Kasese and Kyambura. We arrived at the eco lodge and were welcomed by handful of other PCV’s who agreed to come here to preemptively celebrate St. Patrick’s Day and hang out with me and Alex. We were located near a crater lakes, and the place was called Dave the Cave because the Ugandan owner is named Dave and the eco lodge overlooked a crater lake and a small cave.

Alex, Wayne Wong, and I set up our tent and hung out with the other PCV’s. What struck me the most from this place was how organic everything felt. I mean I’ve been to other eco lodges and other ecotourism sites in Uganda, but the energy and passion that Dave had was infectious. As I was cooking tomato sauce in his kitchen, he urged me to pick some fresh basil, oregano, parsley, and rosemary from the nearby demonstration garden. Later in the day, as the golden sun set behind traditional dancers and drummers, PCV Hannah Long and I walked down the dirt road that skirted the eco lodge and led to Dave’s garden.

I couldn’t believe how vast and expansive his garden was. We walked through the garden and Rosemary in Gardenpicked fresh: rosemary, coriander, parsley, oregano, arugula, iceberg lettuce, romaine lettuce, spinach, thyme, sage, turnips, beets, radishes, carrots, tomatoes, husk tomatoes, leeks, celery, gooseberries, broccoli, cauliflower, eggplant, cucumbers, okra, and various other vegetables and leafy greens that I hadn’t seen in over 16 months. Dave stated that he wanted to inspire other Ugandans to utilize the rich soil and grow a variety of plants and produce to both consume and sell at the markets.

When we returned to the eco lodge, we chilled by the nearby bonfire and ate fried local fish from the crater lakes. That night, the temperature dropped to the low 50’s, and I was freezing in the tent even though I was bundled up in several layers worth of clothing. In the morning, we hitched a ride with a truck driving Ugandan who was headed past Kalinzu Forest where Alex, Wayne Wong, and I paid 50,000/= to go chimp trekking. We had woken up before the sunrise, and by the time we got to the forest, the air still felt damp and cool from the night’s chill.

Chimp TrekkingI took in a deep breath, because the air smelled so earthy and fresh. One of the chimp trekking guides led us deeper into the thick forest. About 45 minutes into the journey, we came across an adult chimpanzee at the end of the road. As we approached him, he scampered away and we continued to trek him. About 30 minutes later, the guides stopped in a small clearing and pointed out several chimpanzees swinging from the branches of the nearby trees. We saw a mother and her chimp swinging from branch to branch. We even heard the distinctive roar/cry of the chimpanzees as they swung from the boughs of the overhanging tree branches.

At some point, the guide suggested that we head back to the base. On the way back, we departed the forest clearing and entered into the rolling green fields of a Majani Tea Plantation. It’s sites and days like this that still astound me; seeing the countless tea plants that stretch far into the distance as Ugandan field workers snip the fresh tea leaves into their baskets. We then took a Tea Plantationvery crowded private hire sedan to Mbarara and then onto our next stop at the Bishop Stuart PTC where PCV Stephen Elliott hosted us. The stipulation was that we could stay if we tossed the Frisbee at the nearby field, climbed his water tower, and drank beers with him. Naturally, we agreed that this was well worth the price of lodging for the night. If the night at the eco lodge felt like winter and the morning in the forest felt like spring, then the afternoon at Bishop Stuart PTC felt like the end of a solid summer’s day. The sun was shedding its golden rays down the suburban-like streets of the tutors’ housing. And a warm breeze wafted by us as we sat on Stephen’s cement porch.

We bid farewell to Wayne Wong on the morning of the 17th. Alex and I took a taxi on the Mbarara-Kabale road headed towards Kabale and he took a taxi headed back towards Kampala. It was at this point that Alex started to notice the different landscapes of the southwest. He continuously Kabale Elephant Manstated that this was such a beautiful ride, and I told him that it would only get better. I helped Alex print his visa papers for his eventual hike in the DRC, and then we bought straw elephants from the elephant man in front of the Indian grocery store. Let me explain this a little bit more, within the space of less than 100 feet on the main road of Kabale there is an Indian store and usually this old man in a wheelchair with a hand crank that he uses to roll his wheels. Whenever he sees non-Ugandans pass into the Indian shop he would yell “ELEPHANTS!” and plunge his hand into a black cavera and display handmade, straw elephant figurines to sell. I had heard stories about this man, and Alex and I bought two elephants from him.

Conversation with Elephant Man:

Elephant Man: *sees us* “ELEPHANTS!”

Me: “How much?”

Elephant Man: “10,000!!!!”

Me: “No, 5,000!”

Elephant Man: “Yes!” *He then displays the straw elephants from his black cavera where he stores them*

Indian Man: *Talking to Ugandan store workers in very Indian accent* “You bring for me fifteen eggs!”

We took a pit stop at PCV Carl Mulhausen’s house at the Kabale NTC where we also met up with PCV Paul Benz. Carl shared his own experiences climbing Mt. Nyiragongo in the DRC several decades ago when he was a PCV during the reign of Idi Amin. He recalled that his experience climbing that volcano and hearing the perpetual roar of the lava inside the crater would be one of the most amazing and memorable experiences of his life. I got excited for Alex, and was definitely jealous that I wouldn’t be able to join him on his journey to destroy the One Ring.

By this point it was the late afternoon, so Alex and I quickly found a taxi headed towards Kisoro that took about 2 hours to fill. However, it was worth it because we saw the sun bursting forth from the clouds that surrounded the Virunga volcanoes of Kisoro. Even though I had seen this view before, it still felt very epic to witness the winding road with hairpin turns and steep drops that led to sloped farmlands, elevated lakes, and towering hills and mountains. If I thought that this was gorgeous, I couldn’t imagine what Alex must have felt witnessing these views for the first time in his life. By the time the sun had hit the horizon, our taxi arrived in Kisoro and we met up with PCV Bruce Haase at the Coffee Pot. We had burgers and turned in for an early night.

Kisoro SunsetIf there was one thing that I was beginning to learn from Alex’s visit, it was that he reminded how amazing my life was here in Uganda. At one point he told me that my life here was not normal. I guess that after 16 months I forget that what I do on a weekly basis here is not normal, at least by American standards. Hearing about the sites that I was used to seeing on a semi-regular basis reminded me of how much I loved my life here. It took having a part of home come to visit me in order to remind me of how life-changing my Peace Corps experience is. It’s very easy to get used to the ups and downs of day-to-day life here and to forget that living in such a unique environment with the opportunity to see both great and terrible things is not the norm. As Ugandans would about us, we are used.

Saturday 18th – Monday 20th

Alex and I woke up early in order to see the sunrise at the hill with the gorgeous view of Mt. Alex and Lake MutandaSebinnyo and Lake Mutanda. We filmed a few scenes of us with the One Ring. Once again, I felt weird about Alex visiting these sacred places of my Peace Corps service. Whenever the various stages of my worlds collide, I can’t help but notice just how different all of me and my friends have become. We took our photos and met Bruce at Traveller’s for their 10,000/= breakfast, which includes bacon and cheese. We quickly packed up back at Bruce’s house, and made our way to the border at Cyanika.

Alex had to pay a $30 visa fee ever since they mandated that persons with American passports must pay a fee to acquire a visa at the border with Rwanda. Fortunately, Bruce and I sweet-talked Virunga Mist Beerthe right people at the border office and explained to them that we were East African residents, so they gave us the Interstate Pass which allowed us to travel to and from Rwanda for free. From Kyanika, the taxi driver drove us on the other side of the road to the transit town of Musanze. We chilled here at the French/Italian bakery and restaurant called La Paillotte with their amazing Boulette (meat balls), baguettes, and Virunga Mist beer. Honestly, that beer was one of the best that I’ve had during my Peace Corps service. It’s a darker beer, but not as dark or as filling as a stout and still refreshing enough with the taste of oats and barley.

Lake Kivu PierWe took the afternoon taxi to Gisenyi where we stayed at the Discover Gisenyi Hostel near the shores of Lake Kivu. While the town seemed very local and small, the lakeside felt very serene. I could have thought that I was on vacation in a small, European beachside town or Riviera. From the manicured lawns of our European beach chalet, we could see Rwandans doing flips off of a stone pier into the clear waters of Lake Kivu and then walking back onto the sandy shore. That night, we have dinner at a local restaurant, with food that resembles Ugandan food but tastes a bit more flavorful. Also thanks to the Belgian colonizers, the Rwandans know how to bake bread in many of the towns as opposed to Ugandans who mainly adopted tea time from the Brits.

Journal Entry:

“It’s interesting at this point in the journey, because I feel like we’re past the awkward stage of meeting and hanging out since high school, but I feel that we have vastly different personalities and interests and ways of approaching situations. I think it also has to do with the trouble of understanding how life is here in the Peace Corps.

But now on our coaster ride to Gisenyi from Musanze, I feel giddy. I’m excited with the prospect of new adventure and experiences.”

As the sun set, we could see the far off Mt. Nyiragongo in the DRC shrouded in clouds like Mt. Doom itself.

Thursday 19th – Friday 20th

During these two days I chilled at the lakeside chalet hostel and chilled by the lake. I even took a dip into the clear waters because the staff assured me that there was no schistosomiasis in the water. In the meantime, Alex took a boda from the chalet 1.6km northwards to the DRC border. As I chilled safe in Rwanda, he prepared for his sojourn to the mountain of doom in the DRC, and here is his story:

Alex’s Story:

“My heart was pounding as I approached the border called La Grande Barriere.. I mean all the stories on any international news site would tell you about the problems regarding rebels and disorganized governance in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Both Anthony Bourdain’s No Entering GomaReservations and Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness painted a very bleak portrait of this center of Africa. I’m sure that not many people would ever do what I am doing right now. When got to the border, I had my bag searched and a nurse checked my WHO card to ensure that I had received all of the required vaccinations. I then had to hand over my passport to the border officials along with a visa confirmation explaining that I had registered for a visa a month earlier online through the Virunga Trekking website. In total I had paid $250 for the park permit and trekking, $105 for the visa into the DRC, and about $23 for transport to the Kibati Patrol Post from the border crossing.

As I waited for the officials to process my visa, I met some other travelers who would join me on my hike up Nyiragongo. Even though I had spent my summers in French Switzerland, I was glad that my other companions also spoke French. After the officials stamped a visa into my passport, I boarded the Virunga Treks jeep and they took me and my new companions through Goma town towards Kibati Patrol Post. It was such a new experience to see this forbidden part of the world. As an American with two passports, US and Italian, I always believed that travelling anywhere in the world was an easy task. However, it always gave me a rush to know that I was treading on land that few people would ever have the opportunity or will to traverse.

Blackened GomaThe developed part of Goma town looked nice compared to most other towns in Uganda. However, once we passed into the neighborhoods, the color scheme of the entire environment changed. Instead of the brown of dust and dirt, the villages surrounding Goma were all black. Fences of black and dark red volcanic rocks were built by enterprising villagers, and the houses and huts looked like log cabins that wouldn’t have looked out of place in northern United States. Some of the houses had the traditional tin roofs while others had brick shingles. Even the cloudy sky cast a shadow on an already gloomy-looking town. But what struck me the most from this journey was the reaction of the people.

In Uganda, people were always friendly and willing to wave at you if you waved at them. In Rwanda, it required a bit more effort to get them to wave back at you. However here, some of the villagers would just stare at us, throw stones at us, give us the finger, or ask for money. Only a select few of them greeted us when we said hello in French or Swahili. Every few minutes our jeep would pass by a United Nations vehicle with blue helmets riding with their rifles. Apparently, the nearest rebel group was only 11km away from Goma. We also kept passing by what looked like an elongated, wooden bicycle that the villagers used to transport jerrycans of water, livestock, and sacks of food.

We approached the Kibati Patrol Post and consolidated our supplies for the trek. Some of my Congolese Guardscompanions hired porters for $12, but I decided to carry my own backpack up and down the mountain. Our Congolese guides and armed guards explained to us that we would be reaching an elevation of about 3400m and that the trek would take about 4-6 hours including rest stops at designated intervals. There were also 12 hidden, armed guards stationed at various points along the path who would protect and alert us if any rebels got too close.

The trek up was definitely miserable at points, but the harder it got the more worth I placed into this experience. We first started on a path that led straight into the heart of the Virunga Park forest. It steadily climbed upwards at a slight, muddy gradient until it gave way to broken up Rain on Volcanic Rocksvolcanic rocks that sloped at a steeper gradient. About two hours in, we left the forest behind and were clambering up steep volcanic rocks the size of baseballs and stretches of slick volcanic outcroppings as the rain started to pour. I felt miserable going up, because I knew that both my body and my backpack with my sleeping bag was getting wet.

About 4 hours into the journey, our guides stopped us and told us to look at a small fissure in the ground overgrown with trees and plants. He explained that in 2002 the lava from the volcano welled up here and then overflowed down this face of the volcano where it pooled in a small crater and then reached Goma town and eventually Lake Kivu. That explained all the black volcanic rocks and black dirt in Goma Village. As I turned around to look at Goma, I couldn’t believe how high up I was. I could see a green, football pitch-sized crater below me and Goma Village in the far off distance as if it was a small lego town.

At this point, we were approaching the clouds. We passed through another stretch of steep forest View above the Cloudspaths, and then made our way to the last stretch of clearing, which consisted of small volcanic crags that acted as stepping stones. The path ceased at this point, and each one of us chose his or her own path up the last 100m of the climb. During this stretch of 30 minutes, the clouds parted from the blustery winds and the clear skies greeted our final ascent. Behind us lay what looked like the Savannah and the lonely towns of Goma and Gisenyi hugging the eastern side of Lake Kivu.

The guides told us that we were to choose a small cabin built near the crater of the volcano where Sulfur Cloud Sunsetwe could place our things and sleep when night came. The cabins were literally just planks of wood nailed together to keep rain and wind out, and inside each cabin was a heavy-duty tent designed as an extra layer of protection against the harsher elements of wind and mist. Outside, everything was bathed in a golden glow as the sun set behind clouds of both water and sulfur. Everywhere I turned was a gorgeous and breath-taking view. It feels hard explaining how amazing it felt to be up there at what felt like the end of the world. As I approached the crater, I could see a reddish glow beyond the emanating sulfur clouds. I will never forget that perpetual rumbling of the lava in the crater that reminded me of an ocean wave that was forever crashing down on the surf.

When the clouds cleared, we could look down into the crater where we saw these sheer cliff dropsMt. Nyiragongo Lava Lake that led to a lower level of the crater, which led to another lower level of the crater, which finally led to the lake of lava itself. Even though we were far away from the lava, we could still feel a remnant of radiating heat from the lava. As night came, the lava lake became much easier to see. All I could do for hours was gaze at the lava and listen to the never-ending rumble and roar of lava explosions. The pool of lava was forever changing with the solidified rocks on the surface of the lake forming and re-forming into different shapes. At some points the surface looked like a fractured mirror, spider-web, penises, or even the Eye of Sauron himself. At some point in the night, I took out a bottle of white wine which was chilling in the winter-like air. I shared the bottle with my new companions, and as the clouds whipped around us we listened to Ed Sheeran’s I See Fire, Johnny Cash’s Ring of Fire, and Howard Shore’s Breaking of the Fellowship.

Sulfur SunriseYou know, I felt alright with my life up there. I really believe that I was on a true adventure of a lifetime that I would never forget. That time spent on the volcano felt almost spiritual. Something had changed within me and I knew that when I descended from this mountain that I would never be the same again. The night got darker and deeper, and I retired to my cabin where my sleeping bag kept me warm throughout the night. Funnily enough, all I could think about was how delicious the burrito Marvin told me about at Meze Fresh in Kigali would taste.

I set my alarm for 5am since the guards told me that the sunrise would be at 5:40am. As I rose, I heard my other companions join me to witness the sunrise. Even though I felt miserable, slightly hungover, and cold I was happy to witness a new sunrise on Mt. Nyiragongo. Behind me, I could see Goma illuminated by the fires of a thousand villagers and the intermittent lightning of a far-off storm cloud. And in that moment, I made my decision to destroy evil for good and I threw the One Ring into the fire chasm from whence it came (even though I technically bought the ring in the Indian Store in Fort Portal with Marvin and Jenna’s help). The sun rose and as the clouds whipped around our feet they covered the lake of lava and I bid farewell to such a beautiful view.

The trek down was uneventful in that it rain the entire way down and we were all soaking wet, muddy, and ready for our next meal and warm shower. We made it to the Patrol Post within 3 hours since we didn’t stop for a rest, and the jeeps took us back through Goma. On the way back, I bought a Simba beer from a local shop, because I wanted to know what it would taste like. I re-entered Rwanda without much trouble, and met up with Marvin and Bruce back at the hostel.”

When Alex told me his story, I was beyond jealous and knew that before I left for the United States that I would do this trek. In the meantime, it felt nice to relax by the lake and chill with Bruce. We ate a local lunch at the bus park, and then took a bus to Kigali. One of Alex’s companions joined us on the coaster back to Kigali. Her name is Josie and she shared her story with us: She wanted to visit Rwanda ever since she was 14 and had volunteered with the Sisters of the Good Shepherd of Quebec where she had worked in Haiti, Madagascar, and then in Rwanda as a peanut butter factory worker rabbit farmer, and then as a teacher. She shared her knowledge of Ikinyarwanda with us and explained why most of the towns had two names. For example, Gisenyi was also called Rubavu because after the genocide the government wanted to rename all of the towns so that they could put the past behind them. As a result, many of the towns in Rwanda other than Kigali have two names.

We picked up a wheel of local Emmentaler-like cheese at Muhoko trading center, and continued on our coaster ride to the semi-developed city of Kigali. We had booked dorm beds at the Mamba Clubhouse in Kimihurura neighborhood near Papyrus Club. We ate a well-deserved burrito with nachos at Meze Fresh, chilled with some Rwandan PCV’s, and passed out in warm dorm beds after an even warmer shower.

Saturday 21st – Wednesday 26th

Honestly, after Alex’s adventure on Mt. Nyiragongo I felt that nothing could top that experience forRz Manna Bakery the duration of our trip. As Alex went to visit the Genocide Memorial Museum, Bruce and I hung out at different cafes in Kigali. We started at Rz Manna where we could eat authentic baked goods ranging from cinnamon buns to croissants and jelly doughnuts and waffles. Bruce and I then continued to the MTN House where we swapped stories over a French press of Lake Kivu coffee at Bourbon Café on the third floor. I felt so relaxed hanging out here with a good friend over some good coffee after an already-packed adventure.

We met up with Alex at Hotel des Milles Collines, and got dinner at a French restaurant called L’Epicurean near our hostel. The fact that I had the pleasure of eating Chicken Cordon Bleu is something that I will not forget for as long as I live in the village.

Early in the morning, Alex, Bruce, and I arose and got our shit together to reach Uganda by the early morning. We arrived back in Kisoro by 10am where we bid farewell to Bruce. Arriving this early gave Alex and I more than enough time to reach Kabale by noon and then arrive at the Byoona Amagara docks. Instead of paying for a motorboat, we decided to just paddle a canoe to the island for free. Chilling at Lake Bunyonyi was perfect, because it was just so quiet and relaxing after almost two weeks of constant traveling. I pretty much just napped on the docks, napped in the café area, and in my cozy bed.

We spent Monday night in Kabale town at PCV Amanda Throckmorton’s house. Alex and I broughtLeaving Bunyonyi over a kilo of live crayfish along with the remnant of Muhoko, Rwanda cheese in order to make a black and tan crayfish mac ‘n cheese. That was a good night to talk about experiences, because Amanda asked Alex about his adventure up Mt. Nyiragongo, which started a conversation about the adventures that we have in our 20’s that define a large part of who we become. She shared her own experiences and adventures in India and Myanmar that helped define a part of who she is today. Of course, it didn’t hurt that we were discussing this over a full box of wine each.

Tuesday was literally one of the worst travel days in-country. It took 12 hours to get from Kabale to Masaka after waiting for over 4 hours in total and then squeezing in 24 passengers in a 16 person taxi and then forcing everyone to get off into another one in the middle of the road leading to Masaka. By the time we reached  Wandegeya PTC where PCV Eric Chu hosted us, it was already 9pm and we were exhausted from sitting in a crowded taxi all-day. This was the last homely house of the adventure before I had to say goodbye to Alex. Out of all the PCV houses in Uganda, Eric’s house felt the most comfortable with the cool air, fully-stocked kitchen, and clean sheets on a guest mattress.

Wednesday was our last day together. We celebrated it by picking up Alex’s shirts from the tailor and purchasing more rolls of kitenge for him to bring home. We then stopped by the 1000 Cups café where Alex bought coffee to take home with him, and then we registered for his last night in Uganda at Fat Cat Backpackers. We had hoped that it would be the Wine and Cheese night at the Bistro, but instead we just got three gin and tonics during happy hour and then bought a 1.5L bottle of wine, hummus platter, and various cheeses, meats, and bread from the Nakumatt deli to have our own wine and cheese night on the rooftop of Fat Cat.

Under the influence of our last night together, Alex and I swapped pictures and reminisced about our journey that took us through different climates, time zones, and seasons. At some point, the Peace Corps Safety and Security Officer called and informed us that a terrorist attack might occur at a muzungu-heavy area in Kampala according to the US Embassy. As a fitting end to any adventure, it was raining at 6am Thursday morning when the private hire picked Alex at Fat Cat and drove him to the airport. And this adventure came to a close.

Journal Entry:

“How can I go back to “regular” life after these experiences? It’s just so many thoughts and memories that have shaped who I’ve become today. I don’t know whether to cry or not concerning all of the feelings and adventures that I’ve gone through in these pat two weeks and how they remind me of the stages of my life that brought me this far. Even though I wasn’t there, I feel that the roar of Nyiragongo will resonate within me for the rest of my life.”

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Dusty Coasters

23/11/14 – 6/12/14

“Ah it seems that you have been eating well, because you have put on weight.”

~Several of my neighbors after seeing me return from my travels these past two weeks

I would say that this has been one of the more hectic two weeks of my time here in Uganda. I’ve been busy travelling on behalf of projects, holidays, celebrations, trainings, and my own benefit. As per usual, I feel the need to blog about my experiences in order to make sense of what has occurred and move on to new experiences.

On Sunday November 23rd I left my house in order to go to my old host family’s house in Kasana/Luweero as the guest of Texas Primary School Luweerohonor for the opening of their Texas Primary School. While I lived with them last year the brick structures of what would eventually become school classrooms dotted the family’s compound. As I walked up the familiar roads that led to their house, I could see metal sheets that fenced in a compound of classrooms, staff rooms, a small media room, and the house that was converted into dorm rooms.

It felt very odd to be back in my host family’s house, because the last time I had spent any significant amount of time with them was 9 months ago right before I was sworn-in as a Peace Corps Volunteer. There were so many children around the compound and my host brothers and sisters were all grown-up. I could tell that they weren’t as wild as they used to be during the day, because there were a lot of important guests around. Ministry members, teachers, the LC3, staff, students, and other invited guests. The ceremony had all the regular fixings of a typical Ugandan event: tarpaulin, speakers, joking MC’s, traditional dances, and musical performances lip-synced to Ugandan dancehall songs. I even got to join in with the entirety of my Enkima (Monkey) Clan. I still think that it is so cool that I am part of a clan here. Even my host parents’ parents told me that I was true Muganda.

Graduating to Primary SchoolI saw my tiny host brothers and sisters singing, “My name is ___insert name here___. Welcome our visitors!” Then there was a performance of some kid pleading either to God or to a king of sorts to help give him food. Interestingly enough, the speeches given by the officials were more succinct than usual and only averaged around 10-15 minutes per speech. The food was some of the best traditional Ugandan food that I’ve ever had in country.

Throughout the course of the event I noticed that my host brothers and sisters were avoiding me or not really interacting with me whenever I went up to them. I was worried that maybe they forgot about me since I had been gone for so long. However, towards the evening when the majority of the guests left, the eldest host brother and sister (around 6 and 7 years old) warmed up to me and started playing with me. I was laughing very hard as they ran races, attempted to carry jerrycans that were twice their weight, and asked me to do some training with them.

As the night approached, I filled jerrycans from the outside tap for my bathing and prepped my old bedroom for sleep. One of the recently graduated students danced into the room with some headphones on. She told me that she really loved Akon. Another student approached her with some glasses, and she said, “Ah! I don’t want to wear that because then I’ll look like a nigger.” I was completely taken aback by the casual way this statement was said. I realized that a lot of hip-hop music makes its way from the United States to Uganda without any cultural context or background. I explained to her that it was inappropriate to say comments like that, especially in front of children due to the meaning of the words she chose to use. To her, “nigger” just meant a cool, well-dressed person with a lot of money. As I thought about it, I could see how someone growing up in the village here could associate it with that concept after hearing the frequent use of that word in hip-hop songs.

After clearing up the misunderstanding, my host mother asked me to show a movie to the pupils who stayed in the house. I hooked up my portable speakers to my laptop and premiered the movie Frozen to them. They absolutely loved it, and I guess that the concept was foreign to them because of the liberal use of ice and snow that comprised the majority of the movie. Their favorite character was the snowman, and the concept of making a person out of snow and wasting a perfectly good carrot in order to give him a nose was another foreign idea.

*Note: Attempt to explain holiday ideas such as Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny to any group of village Ugandans for comedic effect.

I woke up early on Monday and my host family members walked me to the main Kampala-Gulu Road. I hopped on a takisi headed to Kampala. I had to first withdraw some money from Barclays and then pick up some newly screen-printed PSN t-shirts. I made my way to the Kisenyi Bus Park, which is further west from the New Taxi Park where I took the Global Bus to Mbarara. That was a very difficult bus ride not only because I traveled alone, but because of how freaking hot it was. There were two seats on either side of the aisle, and the lady in the aisle seat kept closing my window once it got too windy. She would literally lean over me, my plastic bags, and my travel bag in order to close the window.

I kept sleeping a lot, but after almost six hours I made it into Mbarara where I met up with PCV Mike. I got to see the Peace Corps Resource Room where PCV’s can leave books and other accoutrements there for other PCV’s to use. There is also the added benefit of couches, free wifi, and we are also right across the hall from one of the Red Pepper newspaper offices who are notorious for publishing lists “outing” gay members of the Ugandan communities.

We bought some ingredients from the Nakumatt in town in order to make a Mediterranean shrimp scampi infused with some Vegeta seasoning that PCV Sam bought for me during his trip through Croatia. We cooked a tomato and white wine shrimp scampi over a bed of fusilli, which was deliciously amazing since I hadn’t tasted shrimp in over a year. I was glad that I made it over to Bishop Willis PTC before Mike left. We also danced to some dubstep and shared some music with one another before I went to bed.

Tuesday was a very memorable day for me. I walked from Bishop Willis PTC to the main road leading out from Mbarara. I caught a takisi headed to Kabale. About 3 hours and 3 takisi switches later I arrived in Kabale town. It always seems that a woman throws up on this journey as we twist our way through the winding hill roads of the far southwest. I arrived in Kabale town and walked to Amanda’s house.

Amanda's House Thanksgiving MealAmanda’s house reminds me so much of a real house or apartment back in the United States. The way things were laid out felt very homely and welcoming. Also the air inside the house made me feel as if the air-condition was on the entire time. I felt very relaxed as I shared a cup of coffee and a glass of red wine with Amanda and Matt. Matt started quizzing me about the world map mural that he had drawn on one of the living room walls. I did a decently good job of locating the countries in Europe and Africa, but had a difficult time with those in South America. In the evening, more PCV’s came in order to celebrate a pre-Thanksgiving of sorts. We made mashed potatoes, green beans with bacon, creamed peas and carrots, broiled chicken breasts, and boxed stuffing complemented with a jar of cranberries.

It was such a delicious meal that I shared with good friends in a good atmosphere. The night ended as the box of wine depleted and we all spent a night of snoring and labored breathing due to a lot of ingested food, cat allergies, and boxed wine.

The next day we headed over to Lake Bunyonyi after painting a world map mural at Amanda’s primary school. There were about 30 of us celebrating together on the islands of Byoona Amagara and Bushara. It was so great just to be in a place where I felt cold and surrounded by friends. The first night was mainly spent catching up with one another and enjoying the literal and figurative atmosphere. It had rained a little bit in the evening and the sunset cast a gorgeous rainbow in the background of the lake, which made the area look even more beautiful than it usual looks.

Painting a World Map Mural

Painting a World Map Mural

Rainbow at the Docks

Rainbow at the Docks

Lake Bunyonyi's Reflection

Lake Bunyonyi’s Reflection

On Thanksgiving Day, everyone from both islands and those from Kabale Town met up at the Birdnest, which was a hotel/bar/restaurant on the shore of the mainland. We all ordered some Muzungu food, drank, connected 3 portable speakers together to an iPod, and gathered around in a circle in order to tell each other what we were thankful for. Personally, I’m thankful for:

Good PCV Friends

Good PCV Friends

Having the opportunity to live out my dream of joining the Peace Corps.

Sunlight.

Good food.

A cold gin and tonic.

Good coffee.

A job well done.

Good friends that I never lost.

My family (Filipino, American, Ugandan, Peace Corps)

As lunch ended, we all gathered together at Byoona Amagara for a follow-up dinner before the PCV’s from Bushara headed back. As the night progressed, the number of us who stayed up dwindled. It was cold and rainy, but a few of us rallied and went skinny dipping off the docks around midnight. It was actually quite hilarious, because of how cold the water was and that it was still raining.

*Note: At this point in my home I had to take a break writing in my blog in order to eradicate an ant colony that was under my desk as well as a black baby snake that I hope isn’t a Black Mamba.

I spent one more day at Lake Bunyonyi. At this point more than half of the PCV’s left for various reasons: to go gorilla trekking, explore Rwanda, or head back to site to attend a Ugandan wedding. After breakfast, I decided to canoe over to Bushara to see what the remaining PCV’s were up to over there. The last time I was at Lake Bunyonyi, there were three of us in a canoe and we had the hardest time getting the canoe to go straight. This time, I finally got the hang of it and made it to the other island after about 45 minutes of paddling.

As I approached the other island, I was greeted by the remaining PCV’s who were sunbathing on the dock. We chilled, listenedBushara Docks to some music, and enjoyed the rope swing. Honestly, that rope swing spot might be one of favorite locations in all of Uganda. I just felt so free as I fly through the air, release into a backflip, and know that I will land in really cold lake water. I played a card game called Ligretto after having a lunch of crayfish quesadillas. PCV Julia, who was my trainer a year ago and who is about to COS, invited me to hang out at her house the next day. I excitedly agreed since I needed to do something for a day before I made my way to Shimoni for Teacher Bootcamp Training with the new group. It had been raining on and off throughout the course of the day, so after a light shower gave way to a patch of clear skies I hurried back to the canoe to return to Byoona Amagara.

Rainy CanoeAbout 10 minutes later, the wind started whipping around me and waves started to rock my canoe. All of a sudden, it started to downpour. I placed my camera bag underneath my legs and paddled against the rain, wind, and waves towards the island. I had to be sure that I paddled perpendicular to the waves, because whenever I started to paddle parallel to them the canoe would rock violently. I felt epic, I felt like a hardcore explorer, but mostly I felt stupid for not leaving earlier when there was a much larger patch of clear skies.

That last night at Byoona Amagara was chill. The remaining PCV’s played Salad Bowl. I turned in for an early night because I knew that tomorrow would be another busy day. On Saturday a boat picked us up from Byoona Amagara and swung by Bushara in order to pick up the PCV’s over there. As the boat made its way to shore, Julia asked what we should do for dinner. I posited that we should purchase some crayfish and steam them for dinner. Julian added that we could do a Bouillabaisse. When we got to the docks, I asked some Ugandans if we could buy some crayfish, and they pulled up some large crayfish catching baskets from underneath the dock.

The baskets functioned as a trap for the crayfish with either corn, a piece of chicken, or some po sho used as bait. One end of the basket was inverted inwards so that the crayfish could easily enter but couldn’t exit and the other end was like the end of a wine bottle except that it was stuffed with reeds so that the crayfish couldn’t leave on their own volition unless poured out by someone. We bought 2kg of live crayfish, and I finally was able to purchase two small crayfish catching baskets in order to add to my growing basket collection from different parts of Uganda.

Crayfish Basin

Crayfish Basin

We stopped by the Kabale market so that we could pick up leeks, onions, tomatoes, and garlic for the Bouillabaisse. Then we took a private hire to Julia’s site, which is known as the sprawling village trading center metropolis of Bukindo. Julia had already removed most of her items from her house, but it still felt pretty homely. There was a dining room with a couch bed, a guest bedroom, and a kitchen and bathroom with running water. We first steamed the crayfish using the Luwombo method. The method involves steaming food without a fancy steamer or wire rack. One simply lines the bottom or a ssefuliya (metal pot) with the thick stems of a matooke leaf and then pours water or beer on the bottom. Then whatever is being steamed is wrapped with the leafy part of the matooke leaf and placed on top of the stems. Another ssefuliya or cover could be added to the first one in order to allow the steaming process to be more efficient.

Crayfish Racing

Crayfish Racing

Traditionally this method is used to prepare matooke, sweet potatoes, and chicken Luwombo. However in this case it was used to steam crayfish, which had a slight taste of the matooke leaves and the Nile Beer that we poured in it. While we prepared the vegetables for the Bouillabaisse, we had a small crayfish race with our chosen champions. Julia’s crayfish, Rambo, won whereas mine, Old Man Jenkins, died at the starting line.

Crayfish Luwombo "Crayfish Steamed in Matooke Leaves"

Crayfish Luwombo “Crayfish Steamed in Matooke Leaves”

Crayfish Bouillabaisse

Crayfish Bouillabaisse

The dinner tasted amazing as well. The steamed crayfish was just so sweet and really reminded me like I was eating mini lobsters. It was bittersweet to finally be hanging out with a bunch of my trainers right as they are about to leave, but I was thankful that I had the opportunity to at least hang out with them before they left.

On Sunday I left Julia’s house early in order to get to Kampala. Emily, who also stayed at Julia’s house, and I hopped on a Bismarkan Bus Waiting BukindoBismarkan Bus passing through Bukindo that was headed to Kampala. The ride wasn’t as bad as the ride to Kabale or Mbarara, but it wasn’t great either. It was very hot at one point, then it got chilly because of the rain, then the window started leaking, then it was humid again. Eventually we found our way to Kampala. I said goodbye to Emily and met up with Ravi at the Old Taxi Park at the Kira-Bulindo stage headed to Shimoni PTC where the new trainees were having their School based Training/Teacher Bootcamp.

I felt very weird being back at Shimoni after more than a year. I couldn’t tell if they had fixed it up and made it look nicer or if I had just gotten used to things here because I thought that the venue was much nicer than I remembered it. I had noticed that the trainees had changed a bit since I last saw them. They seemed to be a bit more stressed, anxious, and worried about their training and the future afterwards. I think that some of them were worried that the 27 month would take much longer than they had originally expected since training was dragging on forever.

As I entered the main hall, I was greeted by trainees and trainers alike who all asked me what I was doing there. I explained that I was asked to be here by the Literacy Coordinator Audrey who wanted me to create a video detailing the Primary Literacy Project training model. Therefore, I wanted to get some footage of what training looked like from the perspective of both the trainees and the trainers. For some reason I also felt anxious about being back at Shimoni. I just felt weird, as if something was off. Then again I feel like that whenever I spend a significant amount of time away from site.

I started the majority of the filming on December 1st. I filmed the trainers doing demonstration lessons at the PTC and some trainees performing literacy workstations at the demonstration school. Honestly, just being here at training for a full day took a lot out of me. I felt exhausted being on the entire time and filming lesson after lesson. However, it felt very refreshing to see the trainees eager to teach and implement the skills that they were taught when they were at Kulika.

In the evening, Ravi and I chatted a bit about some problems and concerns that we were going through. He talked about the stresses of training and shared a few anecdotes with me. I talked about what I had been doing in the meantime and how I was so worried that my ICT Lab wouldn’t be funded by February. We exchanged some advice and chilled on my hammock for a bit before doing some T25. We then had dinner and I finished my first full day of being back at School Based Training.

I spent the entirety of Tuesday filming at the PTC. I made the parts that I filmed look good; however, there were a few problems involved with trainees’ lesson plans. Of course this was expected, because it was their first actual day of teaching. For some of them it was their first day of real teaching in their entire lives. During lunchtime one of the trainees approached me because she was having some trouble. She felt like she had bombed her lesson and had trouble reconciling why she didn’t feel any emotional attachment to her students afterwards. She expressed to me how difficult she felt it already was living in country and how she felt that she hasn’t been the real her since she left the United States.

I explained to her that as PCV’s we all have different facets of our personality that we exhibit at different times. I told her that while many short-term volunteers look for meaning in the things that they do, Peace Corps Volunteers tend to do things and inadvertently stumble across meaning in the process. As for the concerns involving being invested in ones students, I shared that I didn’t feel that much emotional connection with my students until I started teaching at my PTC.

To me, it was interesting being approached for advice, because I still feel like I have more questions than answers. But I think that sharing my personal perspective was helpful to her in understanding how to approach the rest of training.

Finally it was Wednesday and I packed up my stuff to leave Shimoni for a week before I returned for Cultural Integration and Homestay Preparation Sessions. I was dropped off at Kira and took a takisi headed back to Kampala. I switched to another takisi where I was dropped off at Kisementi and I walked to the Peace Corps Office. I needed to work on a few projects where I could use the internet. As chance would have it, Jason and Loren were both there preparing for the My Language Spelling Bee celebration that would take place on Friday November 5th. They approached me and asked if I would be willing to take pictures during the event. I agreed given that I would be reimbursed for my stay in Kampala in the meantime.

It was perfect timing, because I still needed to do some work at the office and in Kampala where the internet is fast. I edited a first draft of the Primary Literacy Project video and called my middle school and high school in order to see if they would still be willing to have fundraising events for the computer lab at my PTC. I was pleased with the first draft of the video, and I passed out on one of the beds in Fat Cat.

I spent the next day meeting up with other PCV’s who were COSing. It was weird seeing them hit the gong, which signified that Tara Gonging Outthey were no longer a PCV but an RPCV. I imagined being in between the two worlds of life in the midst of being a Peace Corps Volunteer and the life of one who has to think about adjusting to life in a developed country.

I napped hardcore during the day and when I woke up I hung out with some PCV’s at the Bistro for Happy Hour gin and tonics. We had a delicious dinner at Ari Rang, which was a treat since I missed tasty Korean food in an ambient setting such as this one. I didn’t get much work done during the day, but I did discover that one of the stores in the Kisementi area had Leffe Blond beers stocked in the refrigerator section. Ah the taste of a good Trappist beer took me back to Europe and traveling through Brussels airport on our way here from staging.

I took a ton of pictures during the My Language Spelling Bee celebration where the winners, teachers, and family members of the My Language Spelling Bee championships had a ceremony dedicated for them. The cool thing about this one in particular was that the prime focus went to the pupils who were the champions in their respective language region. In many Ugandan events the chairpersons, administrators, and other adults are the center of attention. However, a special effort was made so that the pupils knew that today was their day. I loved it.

Champions and Organizers

I showed Audrey the first draft of the Primary Literacy Video, and she liked it. There are a few things that we would like to include in it, but the meat of the project is there. After the event, I got drunk with some other PCV’s over Desperados and Leffe Blond at Fat Cat. I also ate this delicious sandwich that was reminiscent of Subway. I went to bed exhausted.

When I woke up I was tempted to join some other PCV’s at the pool in Entebbe, but decided against it in favor of going home for some much needed rest. On my bike ride back from Wobulenzi to Luteete I lost a travel towel that I bought while I stayed at Fat Cat. I also lost my toothbrush and toothpaste which was just as unfortunate. When I made it to my front door, I was bombarded with hugs and smiles from my neighborhood children, but I couldn’t reciprocate their energy. I just wanted to collapse from my two weeks of travelling, training, and working. It didn’t help that I was drinking more than I usually do during several of those days.

I discovered that I don’t really eat that healthily during travel days. All that I can eat are fried foods that are high in fat along with sugary sodas. Then whenever I stay in Kampala I can’t find any cheap and healthy options other than burgers, highly processed foods, cheese, ketchup, sauces, and snacks. I think that I have to rethink the whole concept of “Treat Yo Self” whenever I pass through a town or Kampala. It’s not sustainable or healthy, especially when I leave site for an extended period of time. To be honest, I wasn’t surprised when my neighbors told me that I had eaten well and gained some weight. My lifestyle in the past two weeks made me gain a bit of weight. Ever since I returned back at home I feel that I’ve been eating healthier, drinking more water, and getting back on a regular exercising schedule.

Kampala DuskI also learned that goodbyes get more ritualized the more that they occur. I don’t even get that emotional knowing that I may never see some of these people ever again after they COS. Also while it Uganda is a small country, I have realized that there are so many aspects of it that I have not yet even come to grasp. I think that some PCV’s can fall into the trap of getting into a routine here where they eat at the same restaurants, stay at the same guesthouse, hang out with the same people, and complain about the same things. I don’t want that to be the case for me. I think that there are so many different things to do, people to interact with, and experiences to share that go beyond the places that I have been to time and time again. These past two weeks reiterate the need for me to go beyond my current rituals and comfort zones in favor of something new.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that I have to leave my site just as often. My goal for the holidays and birthday is to go on a long distance bike ride in order to raise money for the computer lab funding. Currently the goal is to bike to Fort Portal from my village, which is around 350km, and have people back home pledge money per km. I have to get it approved by Peace Corps, and I’m banking on the people who wish me happy birthday on my Facebook to also see my project and pledge money. One of the new things that I look forward to this year is using the ICT/Computer Lab as a teaching resource for my students, teachers, and community members here.

Honestly, every single day has been some sort of dusty coaster ride. I start off excited and somehow refreshed at the beginning and somehow end up covered in dust, sweat, and back in a home without a towel.

 

Taking Something Back

5/8/14 – 15/8/14

It’s been another whirlwind of emotions and exertions. It’s been a while since a week like this has taken its toll on my physical, mental, and emotional well-being but I’m still here and ready to embark on the next week’s adventures in this life of a Peace Corps Volunteer.

The craziness began on Tuesday August 5th when I left my site to go to Nakaseke for the weekly radio segment. I had a meeting with a Ugandan man and his daughter at the NB Hotel in Wobulenzi at 3pm. As I mentioned in an earlier blog post, his daughter had won a scholarship to study Computer Engineering in Oklahoma University. She was slated to leave by Sunday but both she and her father wanted to speak to me in order to field some questions about America and college life. I explained to her the basic curriculum of an engineering major, how different the seasons were like, the crazy culture of college students who are exploring their identities and pushing their limits, the rigors of classes, the freedom, how expensive things were, what an internship was, the concept of a green card, and the importance of surrounding oneself with good friends. It felt really good to know that there was a Ugandan student who had worked her way through the education system to eventually have the opportunity to study in a good university and obtain an in-demand degree today.

I then explained to her that if she completes her studies, then she would be able to get many job offers simply because she would be a woman, minority with a Bachelors Degree in Computer Engineering. I then bid farewell to both her and her father and made my way to Nakaseke for the radio show.

He show in Nakaseke was about transportation differences between Uganda and the United States. I explained that the takisi and boda boda system worked in Uganda because people lived so spread out in hard-to-reach places in the middle-of-nowhere sub-counties. Halfway through the show, the power went out so we recorded the second half on Peter’s recorder so that he could play it back when the power returned. I traveled to Nakaseke PTC, made dinner with Rebekah, and then slept.

I had to wake up early on Wednesday because I needed to be at the Peace Corps Headquarters (PCHQ) by 10am in order to make the shuttle to the US Ambassador’s house for the new groups’ swearing-in. I got into Kampala early and got to the PCHQ in time to talk to some staff members and pick up the kitenge drawstring bags that were the gift from Peer Support Network (PSN) to the new group of volunteers.

A bunch of us PCV Trainers attended the swearing-in ceremony which was crazy for me because I thought back to my Swearing-Inown group’s swearing-in when we were the newbies. I smiled when I saw the trainees arrive, clad in their locally made outfits from their different regions. They also seemed a bit dirtier than when I first saw them in Kulika a few months ago. It was a funny swearing-in ceremony with a lot of speakers who just killed it like an open mic session in Kampala. The funniest speech by far was by the Ugandan representative from the Ministry of Education and Sports who just kept talking and talking despite the threat of storm clouds, and at one point in his speech said, “Yes! Please develop us. Please give us the help and development.” My guess is that he didn’t read the book Dead Aid.

On the other hand, one of the most poignant speeches came from the US Embassy Representative charge d’affaires who was an RPCV two decades ago in an East Asian country. She talked about her time in the Peace Corps and how she didn’t have any eye-opening epiphanies or find herself or become this wise and enlightened person. She stated that the biggest thing that she learned was just to try and understand the person in front of her. She literally meant that her biggest victory of the day was getting the person in front of her to understand what she wanted to convey. She ended her speech by saying, “Each and every one of you gave up something to be here in the Peace Corps; take something back with you.”

Before I knew it the new Health, Agribusiness, and GHSP trainees were sworn-in as Peace Corps volunteers and we added 53 new members to our family. While the newly sworn-in volunteers congratulated each other and posed for pictures, I went straight for the free finger foods of teriyaki chicken on a stick, fish puffs, bruschetta, fish sticks, spring rolls, all-you-can drink juice/soda, and Godiva chocolate. I gorged myself on food that tasted like they were filled with preservatives which meant that they were probably from America and not from the local villages. I then doled out the kitenge drawstring bags to the new PCVs and headed back to PCHQ.

There was a small celebration with a few of the PCV trainers, Ugandan trainers, and PC staff at PCHQ. This time there was alcohol, so I was able to eat more good food like cold pasta salad, drink beers and wine, and dance with the Country Director and the Ugandan language training staff. At some point as I was being driven back to the Annex, I was drunkenly cracking jokes in Luganda with my language trainers and most likely gave one of them an extra kitenge bag.

Thursday was an errands day in Kampala. I took the morning shuttle from the Annex to PCHQ where I had a discussion with the Safety and Security Officer and Director of Programming and Training about doing a video for a Coffee Camp in Kasese from August 17 – 23.

Camp Description Excerpt:

“The camp’s objective is to encourage Bukonzo youth to grow their leadership abilities and to equip them with the tools to more fully contribute to the economic development of their family and support their community’s development through agriculture. Two youth, one male and one female will be elected by each of Bukonzo Joint’s 33 washing stations scattered around the remote foothills of the Rwenzori Mountains. The 66 youth will attend a week-long camp to encourage a better understanding of how they can contribute to their family’s coffee farms and the opportunities that exist in employment in the coffee value chain.”

I agreed to do the video, but was worried because my skills were extremely amateur. I only did video in order to help bolster my blog and projects here in the Peace Corps and on occasion help other volunteers with their own projects. I felt that I did not have the skill nor the means to create an amazing video that Peace Corps desired because that wasn’t my job, but I felt that it would be an adventure and learning experience.

A Peace Corps vehicle then drove me and two other PCVs to the Lweza Training Center where the recently sworn-in PCVs were still having an extra full day of training sessions. As representatives of PSN, we sold t-shirts in order to make more money for PSN so that more merchandise and goods could be sold to Peace Corps Volunteers. The vehicle then drove us back to the Annex. It was around this time that I noticed that my body was dragging and that I had a weird tickle in my throat. I dismissed it and decided just to take a nap. Later that night when a bunch of us PCV’s in Kampala ate out at Ari Rang, the Korean restaurant, I started to feel very sick and exhausted.

When I went to bed that night, I had the worst headache imaginable and would experience waves of extreme heat followed by intense chills. It didn’t help that the last thing that I read before going to bed were the symptoms of Ebola and how they correlated with everything that I was feeling at that moment. Funnily enough those symptoms are also usually experienced by almost all PCV’s on a daily basis. After a sleepless night, I decided to take advantage of being in Kampala and returned to PCHQ to visit the Peace Corps Medical Office (PCMO). I got checked up by one of the Ugandan medical officers who told me that there was nothing wrong with me and that I should just rest, drink fluids, and take ibuprofen. Even my stool and blood samples tested normally.

Lake BunyonyiI chilled for the rest of the day, and took it easy. I also started feeling significantly better to the point that I agreed with another PCV friend to go all the way down to Lake Bunyonyi in Kabale in southwest Uganda for the weekend. So on Saturday I traveled to Kabale on a bus. Honestly, Uganda never ceases to amaze me. For such a small country it has such a diverse array of landscapes. As I passed through Masaka and Mbarara the landscape started to flatten out and I could see the wide expanse of the southwest countryside. As the bus neared Kabale the air suddenly became colder and the bus started to wind its way up the winding roads the led its way up to higher elevation in that region.

When I got off in Kabale I felt that I was in a mountain town, because everything was shrouded in mist, the air was much cooler and crisp, and I could see large hills in the background. I rendezvoused with the other PCV’s who were going to Lake Bunyonyi and we all took a private hire car to the docks leading to Byoona Amagara island. It was late by the time we got to the island, and it was extremely cold. Since it was dark, it was hard to see and there was no electricity on the island other than the common seating area at the top of the hill. Surprisingly, there was good cell phone service, a fully working kitchen and menu, and hot drinks.

We stayed at Lake Bunyonyi until Monday morning and honestly it was a relaxing, yet stressful mini-vacation. I was stillCrayfish getting over my 24 hour bug that I had the day before, and the weather was downright chilly. We ate some locally caught crayfish, explored the breadth of the Byoona Amagara island, swam in the waters by the swimming dock, drank the free tea as the mists gave way to the sunlight over the placid waters, canoed in circles towards the rope swing on another island, and danced in the moonlight by the docks. During this time, we also hung out with this Dutch guy, Mark, from Amsterdam who was finishing up his year of working with an organization in Kampala.

It was cool sharing some stories with him about the places that I’ve visited in Holland, as well as comparing our experiences living thus far in Uganda. We talked about the effects of aid in developing countries, different hostels in Holland (like Bostel Amsterdamse Bos in Amstelveen), the pronunciation of Dutch words like Brood, traveling and backpacking in groups and alone, the concept of legalizing weed, sharing deep stories with strangers, and what we hoped to do with our lives after our time in Uganda. It was very interesting hanging out with Mark because it almost felt like I was meeting a friendly stranger in a European hostel who was willing to just hang out for the weekend simply because you’re forced to make that temporary friendship. It was refreshing after having only hung out with other PCV’s in a group numbering less than 200.

Chilling at Byoona AmagaraOn Monday we decide to head back to Kabale where we ate dinner at this backpacker’s hostel called Edirisa (http://www.edirisa.org/index.php?language=1&cat=130). A handful of us decided to continue to just go back home, so we took the night bus from Kabale to Kampala. Although the ride did seem much shorter due to falling asleep, it was also a bit rough. I felt like I was trapped inside this simultaneously hot and cold enclosure for centuries until I was able to embrace the cool morning air that only a 3am jaunt out in Kampala can give you. Fortunately, one of my PCV friends had a room at the Annex, so I slept on her floor for the morning until it was a more reasonable time to be out.

I left the Annex, made a shirt order for PSN, and then took a takisi from the New Taxi Park to Nakaseke because it was time for me to be on the radio show again. Even I couldn’t believe that I had been gone from site for a whole week and was now ready to do another radio show segment. This time, the segment was about the Education system in Uganda. We specifically discussed the structure of Primary and Grade School in the United States and the equivalent Nursery and Primary School in Uganda. This time the power didn’t go out.

But oh man was dinner a blast that night at the Rebekah household. I had picked up 1kg of Gouda from Mega Standard inCheese Galore Kampala earlier that day for only 15,000/=. We made macaroni and cheese, pasta lasagna, and grilled cheese stuffed with caramelized onions, rosemary, and cinnamon. It was too much cheese for my bowels to handle, but I loved it anyway. Since the water was running at site, I was able to poop in the toilet rather than having to walk a hundred feet to the nearby pit latrines.

The next morning on Wednesday I departed Nakaseke to make my way northwards back up to Rachel’s site in Masindi in order to help her take pictures of Peace by Piece. Peace by Piece is a local organization of Ugandan tailors who make kitenge products and school uniforms and sell them in order to provide for their families. What sets them apart from the average tailor is that they also create specialty items such as bomb-diggity kitenge quilts, kitenge yoga bags, kitenge oven mitts, kitenge aprons, kitenge camera straps, and so many more kitenge merchandise. I made a personal order of a kitenge hoodie and another one of kitenge coozies so that PCV’s can keep their Nile Special Beers cold.

Peace by PieceI ended up doing some much-needed, hardcore chilling with Rachel at her site since I was just exhausted and beat from all of the travelling that I had done. That Wednesday night I just passed out after making Mexican dinner with ground beef and didn’t wake up until noon. Thursday was spent slowly getting ready for the day and walking up to Court View Hotel to meet up with some British volunteers associated with Soft Power and two of the new PCV’s who were stationed in Masindi. We swapped some stories among ourselves, especially some choice quotes from the Facebook group “I Fucking Love Village Science” which shares stories from local Ugandans in our villages who share their own ideas regarding how and why things work. Two of my favorite village facts ones are that a woman who is menstruating must not climb a mango tree because if she does all the mangoes will die, or don’t go out at night because the cannibalistic night dancers will eat you and the only way to avoid them is to dress up like one. My query concerning the latter fact is how you would ever be able to tell apart the normal night dancer from one who is simply attempting to avoid them?

On the way back from Court View there was a small, Ugandan carnival that only cost 1,000/=. We paid through a rippedCircus Ride hole in a white sheet with a mysterious, black hand that took our money and gave us a ticket that was immediately torn up by the gatekeeper who through the ticket halves on the ground. We walked in and were not disappointed; there were street foods, gambling games, market day wares, a muddy dancing area, music videos, and even one of those revolving carousel swing rides. I actually laughed when I saw it because it looked like it would fall apart at a moment’s notice, but Ugandans still chose to ride on it. I entertained the thought of riding it for a hot second, but decided that I valued my life too much to tempt fate depending on rusty metal and loose chains.

On Friday August 15th I rode an express takisi back to Wobulenzi where I did some internet errands at NB Hotel as the rain poured all around. Even though the rain hadn’t stopped, I knew that I just had to make it home. I bought my groceries, picked up my bicycle from the police station, and then biked through the rain and mud until I made it back home. Despite my exhaustion, thirst, hunger, and restlessness I was just desperate to make it back home to a place that I was fully comfortable and familiar with. I missed my linoleum floors, my system of washing dishes, my on-off electricity, my fully-stocked kitchen, my pit latrine, the nearby borehole, my neighbors, and the tiny balongo twins. However, what I missed most was just being home. I just wanted to be in my home here and just be. Despite knowing that I will soon embark on another adventure from my site, I am glad that I was able to spend some time in a place that I call home.

P.S. – During this time, Eastern Camp BUILD and GLOW happened in Mbale. In the middle of the week, the media specialist Jim Tanton proposed to his girlfriend, one of the camp directors Julia Lingham. First of all, the pictures from Jim’s camera are spectacular. I honestly felt sincere joy and happiness seeing the photos and video of Jim proposing to Julia, because for the short time that I have known them I felt that they were a power couple and just good, talented people in the Peace Corps and in this world. It’s times like these that I feel that life is good.